Data on CAFOs and Climate Change.

Bryce Oates
Apr 7, 2019 · 8 min read
Liquid manure from cattle and hog CAFOs is an underreported climate risk.

As a professional writer, and many of us are a lonely, tortured lot, there are times you read another author’s words and you feel like giving that person a high-five, a hug, a fistbump, a slap on the back (I’ll let you insert your favorite and situationally-appropriate and boundary-respecting physical expression of fandom). My point is that there are times I read something and I say, “Boom. You nailed it. How are more people not reading this?”

Ben Lilliston is one of those people for me. Ben is a writer, researcher, analyst and advocate for rural communities at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. When I’m in rural reporter mode, I interview Ben regularly. When I want to steal some numbers and data for public consumption or framing something I write, Ben is one of my sources.

Also, Ben is in Minnesota. And I seem to have some sort of unconscious gravitational force compelling me toward the 10,000 Lakes. I don’t understand it, but shoutout to Minnesotans for being awesome. Nevada Littlewolf. Erik Hatlestad. Anna Claussen. Paul Sobocinski. Sally Jo Sorensen. Johanna Rupprecht. Michele Anderson. Main Street Project. Land Stewardship Project. Farmers Legal Action Group. Northern Waters Smokehaus in Duluth. The Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area. The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. Northern Wilds Magazine. Outdoor News. The list could go on forever, but you see what I mean. There’s some magic ingredient in the Grain Belt Premium up in there, folks, and it ain’t just the sweat off of Hermann the German’s brow.

Okay, enough virtue signaling and pandering to my audience (though I have to admit that my network is honestly quite heavy on rural Minnesota). Back to Mr. Lilliston and brass tacks.

Ben recently wrote a short and sweet blog post that everyone involved with agriculture and its role in climate change should be reading and discussing: Latest agriculture emissions data show rise of factory farms. You should probably just stop what you’re doing right now an go read it.

“New data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows a steady increase in agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions, much of it linked to industrial systems of crop production and the rise of factory farm systems of animal production,” Ben writes.

Ben uses EPA-derived data to explain that greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in the agriculture sector have increased more than 10 percent since 1990, with agriculture now accounting for 8.4 percent of U.S. emissions. A lot of other sectors have decreased their GHGs during the same period.

Via EPA Draft Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks 1990–2017

I want to point out that third on the list for agriculture’s GHG contribution is manure management. “Emissions related to manure management rose 66 percent since 1990,” Ben explains. “The majority of this increase is due to swine and dairy cow manure, where emissions increased 29 and 134 percent, respectively,” according to the EPA.

Now I’m gonna go a little longer-form than Ben did in his presentation of facts from the EPA report. No offense, Ben. You sent me down this rabbit hole. One of my most annoying tendencies is to get long-winded enough so that people stop reading my ramblings. That and understated headlines without the flash and pizazz of most click-bait. I practice self-sabotage in many ways. This is but one.

Manure management. Here we go.

The EPA points out that “the shift toward larger dairy cattle and swine facilities since 1990 has translated into an increasing use of liquid manure management systems, which have higher potential CH4 (methane) emissions than dry systems.”

Increasing use of liquid manure. Did you catch that?

This one of the major problems with CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), particularly hog and cattle CAFOs. They generate lots and lots of liquid “waste,” as in millions of gallons. That liquid waste creates a lot of risks. Some of those risks are leakage into waterways, in the recent Midwestern flooding, for instance. Or in odor problems for neighbors of manure ponds. Or in water pollution from over-application of liquid manure as fertilizer that ends up running off the fields and pastures.

(Note: for more of my thoughts on CAFO, including definitions, see last week’s post on Iowa)

But the EPA data and research implicates liquid manure from hog, dairy and cattle operations as a major contributor to agriculture’s increased GHG emissions since 1990. This is new. I have long suspected this, as I have lots of experience doing GHG research and accounting. In a former life, I worked in the forest conservation and carbon credit world. I have a solid grasp of climate science, measuring GHGs, figuring out strategies for reducing emissions and measuring changes that will accomplish change. I’ve been in the biz, you might say.

Here’s an important passage from the EPA Report:

Now we know how it works. Liquid manure produces more methane than dry manure or manure “deposited on pasture, range or paddock lands.” Got it. Methane is a major GHG emission problem. More liquid manure, instead of dry or pasture manure, means more GHG emissions.

What do we know about the change in emissions since 1990? Let’s ask the EPA.

So the data table right there tells us a lot. Liquid manure from dairy cattle has shifted to CAFO production. That has meant an increase of 24.7 MMT CO2 Eq., or 66.3% (GHG emissions are measured in million metric tonnes of CO2, don’t get caught up in the lingo, I’ll get there) since 1990. Beef cattle (CAFO feedlots) show a 0.3 MMT CO2 increase, 9.7%. Hog CAFOs earned a 4.5 MMT CO2 increase in GHGs, a 29% increase. That’s a cumulative 29.5 MMT CO2 increase in GHG emissions since 1990 that we can attribute to dairy, hog and beef cattle CAFOs.

A brief explanation of that 29.5 MMT CO2 number. Using data from the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, the increase in GHGs from cattle and hog CAFOs since 1990 is equivalent to 3,776,000 households’ annual electric consumption. Or, it’s the equivalent of the fuel consumption of 5,280,500 passenger cars and light trucks for a year. (Note: these numbers are provided to get a picture of the size and scale of the hog and cattle CAFO problem. Carbon emission offset calculators are solid scientifically, but they can be imperfect tools for presenting simplistic solutions to rather complex data calculations. There is a robust and complex debate about such things. . . )

This all matters as policymakers decide how (and unfortunately, if) to address the increasingly wicked problem of climate change caused by human activities. In this case, we’re talking about the contribution of U. S. agriculture and how the manure of cattle and hogs are managed.

Today’s iteration of the “climate policy debate,” and I hesitate to call it that because there is so little “good faith” from mainstream elected officials, is a joke. On one hand, we have the party of Climate Deniers (that’s the Republicans, if you were wondering). On the other, we have the party of Climate Change Enablers (that’s many of the Democrats that are throwing up their hands and saying, “I don’t know what to do, and how would we pay for it anyway?”). Most notably in that camp is former President Barack Obama, who gave some great speeches about climate change but nevertheless presided over the largest expansion of oil and gas drilling in US history. Thanks, Obama. (Please, Sir, learn from the best former Presidents like Jimmy Carter and go build some houses for the poor instead of spending your time and political capital bragging about your role in deepening the climate and ecological crisis).

Adding insult to injury, or icing on the cake, we have the debate over the Green New Deal proposal advanced by U. S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and her climate action leadership, the Sunrise Movement, Data for Progress, New Consensus and many other political and grassroots leaders.

Rather than focus on substance, we are talking about cow farts. We are talking about how Democrats are gonna come for your cheeseburgers.

This is all too convenient for the proponents of CAFOs as part of the “modern agricultural mix,” those who propose technocratic solutions to climate change like more tech, producing more with less, etc.

Because if we were being honest, we’d look at the science and figure out where the problem actually resides. In the case of cattle and hogs, the growing GHG emission problem is not with cow farts. It’s not with cow burps, either. The same EPA report I quoted above pretty much (but not quite) lets enteric fermentation off the hook (take note, EAT-Lancet Commission, and why on earth would you roll out a report with recommendations to eat less meat by flying in carbon-spewing jets all over the planet.)

When you understand data and science, and have a little bit of agricultural knowledge, you will understand that the contribution of cattle and hogs to increased carbon emissions is not caused by cattle and pigs making digestible nutrient-rich protein out of eating grass and grain. It’s caused dairy and hog manure management. It’s caused by liquid manure, specifically generated by CAFOs.

So what’s one of the best solutions to climate change? It’s getting rid of CAFOs, and re-integrating cattle and hogs back onto a working landscape of pasture, range and grazinglands. If we really wanted to stop the contribution of liquid manure as a GHG contributor, we would be focusing on saving and promoting the family farm dairies that keep their cattle on grass and forage. We’d be promoting hog production that doesn’t create liquid manure (see, deep bedded hoop house and mobile pasture-based production systems). We’d be promoting the traditional family farm system of livestock production that didn’t create gigantic lakes of untreated liquid manure.

If we really wanted to solve the problem of cattle and hog production systems when it comes to climate change, we’d write and pass policies that would ban liquid manure in CAFOs.

Rural Policy Diary is an experiment in sharing data, concepts, ideas, frustrations and analysis that emerge from my rural policy reporting. My core concerns are economic justice, the ecological and climate crisis, rural wealth and labor extraction, public ignorance of rural diversity and the games that politicians play to distract us all. I use this platform to organize my thoughts and catalog information that isn’t published elsewhere. I don’t spend a lot of time editing these posts for clarity and linearity.

Bryce Oates

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Rural policy data and info. Smartass prose. Economy. Ecology. Equity. Inclusion. Diversity. Humility. No gaslighting. No billionaires. No deniers. No empire.

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